Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère is a tender and intelligent portrait of the human condition – Laura Waddell

My book of the week is Yoga by French author Emmanuel Carrère. In the edition in my hands, published by Jonathan Cape, the minimalist cover design features a vibrantly orange foam mat, tightly rolled up, the title threatening to disappear down the black hole in the middle.

Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère begins at the start of a ten-day silent retreat (Picture: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère begins at the start of a ten-day silent retreat (Picture: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

I was led to Yoga by an online algorithm that recognised I’d been buying books by depressives lately, seeking, for my own research, prose that tries harder to describe living with a fretful mind than poppier books packed with banal platitudes.

At one point, the author confesses to desiring a bigger profile in the Anglosphere, this having been translated from the French by John Lambert. In truth, I was slow to realise Carrere was a contemporary writer; the packaging of his successful short novels in ‘modern classics’ styling threw me off by a few decades.

I’ve read The Moustache, which tells of the existential terror of a man who one day shaves his off, only for nobody to notice, and Class Trip, which follows the imaginative mind of a timid, coddled boy facing the dreaded trial of going away with classmates.

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Yoga, a work of non-fiction, begins with a ten-day silent retreat. Carrère questions “whether there’s an incompatibility, or even a contradiction, between the practise of meditation and my trade, which is to write”.

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But before long, the retreat is interrupted by a phone call informing Carrère a close friend of his has been killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. He describes fleeing the retreat, thinking of the eulogy he is tasked with writing, and visiting the widow of his friend who attends to her husband’s body in the morgue while the family of his attackers mourn in the next room.

From here the plot veers wildly. No longer merely a nice little book about yoga, Carrère goes on to an in-patient stay for severe mental health crisis; visits Iraq on the trail of Saddam Hussein’s ‘Blood Quran’, and ends up on the Greek island of Leros teaching four refugee youngers from Afghanistan and Iraq who have banded together.

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Buffeted by life’s events Carrére investigates how, if at all, it’s possible for a roving mind to find any kind of peace in a world like this. The result is a tender, honest, intelligent portrait of the human condition.

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